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How to Enjoy Eating Out When You Have Diabetes and Eat a Paleo Diet

It's cook's night out and that means good food, without the mess. Sign me up! But as a type 1 diabetic, I know that blood sugar challenges can make eating at a restaurant a stressful experience—instead of a relaxing, delicious one.

Over the years, I’ve learned that by navigating the menu, doing a little research beforehand and thinking outside the bun (getting creative with substitutes), it’s possible to find a meal that makes you happy and leaves you feeling great.

If you are eating a Paleo-friendly diet, or just trying to be healthier, knowing where sugar might sneak into your food is very important to maintaining your blood sugar. Paleo-style eating may take some getting used to at first, but once you have it down, I find it to be an easy routine.  

May I Take Your Order?

To make the experience go smoothly, I recommend speaking with your server first since he or she may not be familiar with Paleo and/or the dietary needs of people with diabetes. Politely explain your situation—most restaurants are happy to accommodate their guests. Always trust your judgment and never allow someone to “bully” you into eating something you know is going to be bad for your blood sugar, because only you know the lasting effect it will have on your body.

When considering the menu from a Paleo perspective, stick with the basics—proteins and colorful vegetables. Avoid dishes that are fried, battered or crusted (typically made with flour or starch) and especially those heavy on the sauce (typically made with sugar and starch)!

Here, some tips to help you enjoy the experience.  

Eat before you go. Eating out can disrupt your normal meal time and your blood sugar is going to know that! If there’s a wait when you finally get to the restaurant, your blood sugar can really become compromised, so plan ahead!

Enjoy a small snack rich in good quality fats and proteins such as a handful of nuts, half an avocado, some pieces of beef jerky or a few spoonfuls of plain yogurt before you leave your house to keep your blood sugar stable. You'll want to be fully present during the meal and being distracted by your blood sugar is no way to connect with friends and family.

Skip the sauce. Sugar is usually the first ingredient in any type of sauce, dressing or gravy, typically followed by corn starch or flour—both ingredients which will greatly spike your blood sugar. Instead look for words like grilled, pan-seared, fresh, or roasted as these usually are safe options!

Don't be deceived by salads. If the dressing they are served with is filled with sugar, that healthy bowl of greens becomes a blood sugar demon. For a healthy salad, stick with a vinegarette dressing made with oil, vinegar and spices. When in doubt, ask for the dressing or sauce on the side so that you can test it for yourself!

Consider the cocktail. If you enjoy a drink before dinner, make sure you know what’s in it!  Many cocktail mixes are filled with…you guess it...sugar! And it comes in the form of simple syrup, processed juices or a combination of the two which can be very dangerous for a diabetic.

Simply ask if the bartender can use fresh juice, like lime, lemon or grapefruit which have lower glycemic loads than other varieties. Or, ask them to hold the simple syrup. Still tempted? Consider another good reason to skip cocktails high in sugar? They cause the worst hangovers!

Instead, try a fresh lime juice margarita made without simple syrup. It may be tart at first but you'll eventually get used to the taste. I really enjoy that tartness now.  

A word about wine. Red wine usually contains less sugar than white, but be sure to consult with your server and ask for a sample. Wine spritzers made with sparkling water or club soda can be a satisfying compromise. If the bar really has nothing for you, order a glass of sparkling water with a lime wedge so you can still have a drink in your hand!

Go “bun-less.” My go-to menu option has long been a burger without the bun and a side salad. If I know the restaurant makes delicious French fries though I do allow myself to splurge on a few. Not comfortable ordering a burger sans the bun? Remove it yourself when the meal is served!

Skipping the bread can be a good strategy for other menu options as well. Many restaurants will happily serve sandwiches on a bed of greens or wrap the contents in lettuce if you like. I’ve even asked the kitchen to turn my meal into a bowl with the protein on a bed of roasted vegetables or sautéed spinach. 

Enjoy each course without remorse. Dining out with friends, celebrating a special occasion or just eating out with your spouse on a Saturday night can get lonely if eating healthy means segregating yourself from the experience.

If bread is served at the start of the meal but you aren’t going to partake, order a small salad, bowl of clear soup or appetizer so you have something to eat, too. At dessert time, order a cup of coffee instead so you have a treat to enjoy.

How to Make Almost Any Type of Food Paleo Friendly

Here, a few tricks you can employ to convert amost any food category into one with Paleo options:

  • Mexican. Remove the meat and fresh salsas from that taco or tortilla or ask your server if you can have it on top of a salad. Taco meat is usually made with onions and spices so it usually works for us Paleo eaters. But that cannot be said for fried fish tacos!
  • Italian. Unfortunately, most pasta and pizza places don’t really have Paleo alternatives so you may want to find a different type of restaurant. If that’s not a convenient option, check out the restaurant menu online before you go. You can usually order a salad and top it with steak, roasted chicken or some other sort of protein. Or, look for an entree that is pan seared, roasted or grilled and ask for a side of roasted vegetables, instead of pasta.
  • Asian. Asian can be tough since many of the sauces are high in sugar and use flour to thicken dishes. But there is some wiggle room. Hibachi restaurants though can be a fun and healthy option since platters of meat and vegetables are grilled for you right at your table. Plus, the chef keeps you entertained with fancy food tricks (ever see an onion become a volcano?). Thai food is known for featuring fresh ingredients prepared with minimal sauce. Skip the rice since it can quickly spike your blood sugar. Sushi is ideal if you are a fish lover since fresh, raw pieces (called Sashimi) can be easily eaten without rice.
  • Breakfast. If your cholesterol is in a healthy range and your cardiologist approves, stick with the basics—eggs, bacon and breakfast sausage!  Ordering a la carte can be a smart way to enjoy breakfast. Create your own plate of eggs served any style with some veggies or a few avocado slices. If you love Eggs Benedict, like I do, ask your server to put it over some roasted breakfast potatoes or sautéed spinach and eliminate the bun. Chain breakfast places have been known to add pancake batter to omelets claiming it makes them extra fluffy, so be careful.
  • All-American Burger and Fries. Again, bun-less burgers are best and if you have the option, tops off with an avocado, mushrooms—and if your heart can handle it—a fried egg or bacon. (This should be an occasional treat, not an everyday habit.) Speaking of fries, beware of those made with sweet potatoes (typically a Paleo fan favorite). Many restaurants dust them in a starch before frying, so inquire with your server. If that is the case, regular white potatoes can be the better option. Or, skip the fries and have them replaced with a side salad or even roasted vegetables.

A note about condiments: Ketchup and BBQ sauce are loaded with sugar. Best Paleo-options are Dijon mustard or garlic style aioli.  

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